McLaren’s road car ambitions nearly ended that tragic day in 1970 when Bruce McLaren lost his life testing a Can-Am racer at Goodwood. His daily driver was a prototype McLaren road car — the M6GT — which used a tuned Chevrolet V8 engine. It weighed less than a Mini, and had 10 times the power. It also had manually operated pop-up headlights that were raised or lowered by hooking your finger inside the light pods. Can you imagine that getting signed off for production today?
Sadly, Bruce’s plan to build 250 cars died with him. Just three were made, but the ethos of the M6GT remains today. The Kiwi wanted to build the fastest, quickest accelerating and highest-spec road car ever, and unusually for the era, the safest too. The same elements all feature in today’s range of McLarens. We sense Bruce would approve.
Here we assemble every series-production McLaren road car — plus the company’s track-only special — for a world-first test. Enjoy.
BLACK-SHEEP McLARENS. SERIOUSLY. THAT’S what these two are, and that’s how they feel today. Sitting in the Anglesey sun, the McLaren F1 and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren stand out visually, acoustically and, as we’ll discover, dynamically against the latest McLarens.
In many respects they don’t feel like McLarens at all — certainly not the McLarens we’ve become familiar with since the Woking marque returned to road-car manufacture in 2011. They lack the indomitable cohesiveness of the modern Macs, the feeling that a similar amount of blood, sweat and (engineering) tears was poured into the indicator-stalk function as the high¬speed DRS activation. Take the styling. The F1’s profile — all Hawk-fighter rake — is a lesson in profile design. But its rear lights? Round. Boring. Taken from a Bova coach. And yes, I’m aware of the tooling costs associated with making your own lights for a low-volume car, but can you imagine a modern McLaren with Bova coach rear lights? And the interior? High-art titanium pedals juxtaposed with a smattering of lowbrow Ford switchgear? Well, it’s a bit rubbish.
But, of course, you soon forget this when you fire up that BMW V12. You instantly feel plugged into a place where every synapse is overwhelmed and you feel giddy, excited, terrified, faint even. The legend of the F1 contributes to this feeling — I mean, this is a McLaren F1 for godsakes, and you’re driving it — but so does the tangible experience. You sit in the middle, your back aligned with the crankshaft and your ears inches from the overhead air intake. It is, and remains, the perfect — and I mean perfect — driving position.
You engage first gear with the stubby lever then clutch-out from idle, yet no McLaren since 2011 has had anything other than a twin-clutch semi-auto gearbox. Of course, you gorge on it, shifting more times than is necessary in a car that weighs 1137kg and has 650Nm. The F1 yelps at clumsy shifts or asynchronous heel-and-toe efforts. It takes a little while to adjust your inputs, to finesse. You soon discover that the Fl responds better with speed, with more load on its axes. You learn to accelerate harder, to feel the surprisingly soft suspension compress the tyres into the road. You learn to increase your apex speed and feel the grip gently blend into understeer. This happens at a much lower speed than you were expecting, too — a 540C on its modern tyres would murder an F1 for ultimate grip — but again it doesn’t really matter, because the F1 is engaging you in the process at every step of the way.
As grip turns to slip, you notice another contrast with modern McLarens — the unassisted steering is heavy and slower to respond. The load on your arms and the lazier response forces a more disciplined approach to driving. You don’t want to throw the car in and adjust your trajectory multiple times during a corner as you can in a modern Mac, because you’re unlikely to rescue any big slides.
So you tend to drive it like a big GT (ironic, huh?), with smooth, deliberate and precise inputs that in turn generate a deeply satisfying feeling of carving. This, combined with the central seat and the wide canopy, conjures a sense of being a fighter pilot on a low-level canyon run.
During acceleration it’s different. Very different. The engine pushes so much power against so little weight, and does so with such startling immediacy, that gearshifts are required with incredible frequency. Fast ones, too, because if you fumble a shift, you lose the magic inherent in wringing out an F1, that of precisely orchestrating multiple mechanical interactions within the car with minimal and deliberate actions from your limbs. Also, the thought of misshifting in an F1 is, well, let’s move on…
With 411kW per tonne the F1 is bettered only by the twin-turbocharged, electrically assisted P1 for power-to-weight in a McLaren road car (491kW per tonne). But crucially, the P1 doesn’t feel faster — merely different. The F1’s sense of speed is defined by the pause-bang moment during the gearshift, the P1’s by a ceaseless feeling of G-force. Consequently, the P1 feels more impressive and the F1 more satisfying.
The fanfare surrounding the McLaren F1 is justified, but the car is not perfect, and in many ways is wildly bipolar. It handles like a GT car and yet goes like a Can-Am racer. Its throttle response is electric but its brakes are lazy. It handles safely and securely but it is not an expressive, chuckable and exploitable car — not on the road, at least. None of these characteristics erode the essential magic of the F1, but they do provide a lingering impression as you jump from the first McLaren production road car to the SLR — a car seemingly defined by its bipolarity.